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Where clean energy jobs are growing the fastest

Clean energy creating jobs
Clean energy creating jobs 04:01

As the federal government changes policies to prop up the coal industry at the expense of renewable energy, it's facing increasing headwinds from market forces.

Recently released data from the Bureau of Labor statistics shows that jobs in solar and wind are projected to grow fastest over the coming decade. Employment for solar installers and wind turbine technicians is expected to roughly double, figures show.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

More surprising is where those jobs -- and markets -- are focused. Disproportionately, they are in red states, including those that voted for Donald Trump in last year's presidential election. Even as the Trump administration moves to dismantle incentives that were previously given to clean-energy projects, states in the Midwest and the South are moving ahead with large-scale clean-energy projects. 

Of the 10 states where solar jobs grew fastest between 2015 and 2016, eight voted for Mr. Trump in the 2016 election, according to figures from the Solar Foundation, which tracks the industry. In the three top states -- Oklahoma, Nebraska and Alaska -- the number of people working in solar grew by 100 percent from 2015 to 2016.

"Solar has become a clean, inexpensive source of electricity. Especially on the utilities side, it's competitive with gas and coal," said Colin Smith, a solar analyst at GTM Research. 

Source: Solar Jobs Census; MoneyWatch calculations

For many of these states, including in the South and the West, the abundant natural resources at their disposal make the economics easier. Mississippi and Alabama each have over 130 megawatts of solar capacity installed, a figure that's projected to triple in the next few years, according to GTM's analysis.  

"You can look at a lot of the resource plans of big utilities in Alabama, Mississippi, California --  they're not doing this for anything else besides that it's good economics," Smith said.

Many of these states are adding capacity from solar and wind simultaneously. The two technologies complement each other: Solar generation peaks in the daytime, while wind tends to be stronger at night, Smith said. Improvements to storage systems mean it's less relevant what time of day power is generated.

Because wind farms require wide open spaces, they are common in the U.S. interior, and in rural areas. Their role as an economic driver in small communities brings the industry support in many traditionally Republican areas, including Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas.

Amazing Aerial Wind Turbine Farm Goldthwaite Texas
A wind turbine farm in Goldthwaite, Texas. Getty Images/iStockphoto

"This is like their GM," said Joel Schmidt, vice president at Alliant Energy, a utility headquartered in Wisconsin. "This is not only their energy; this is bringing jobs to these areas."

In Texas, wind energy capacity is set to outpace coal as early as next year, as unprofitable coal-fired power plants get retired. The state will have 20.3 gigawatts of coal capacity in early 2018, compared with 24.4 gigawatts of wind, according to Utility Dive. Nationwide, 86 percent of wind capacity is found in Congressional districts represented by Republicans, according to data from the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.

Job estimates for 2016 from the American Wind Energy Association

For solar, much of the price drop is thanks to cheaper manufacturing costs, which have now made the cost of building new installations competitive with other projects, like excavating coal seams. And it's not just cheaper panels. The costs of other parts of a system, like the panels' wiring and the brackets on which they're mounted, have all declined, Smith said. "We're seeing some bullish numbers about how low those prices can get."

Panels themselves account for only about one-third of the total cost of a solar system. Even so, the industry's biggest hurdle at the moment is the possibility that the White House will raise tariffs on Chinese solar panels, after a federal trade board found in September that imports unfairly hurt US solar manufacturers. 

"If that moves forward, it's going to cause the price of solar to go up, and as a consequence, less solar will happen," Smith said. "That being said, it's not a death sentence," he added, even "in our worst-case-scenario projections."

But China has already affected America's energy market in other ways. Falling demand from China and elsewhere around the globe is responsible for more than half of the industry's decline between 2011 and 2015, according to a Columbia University analysis. Government policies do have an effect, the report found, but their influence is significantly less important than the presence of cheaper competitors.  

Waters Off Rhode Island Host First Marine-Based Wind Farm In The U.S.
The GE-Alstom Block Island Wind Farm, 3 miles off of Block Island on September 22, 2016 New Shoreham, Rhode Island. The five 6-megawatt wind turbines are expected to produce more energy than Block Island needs. Scott Eisen / Getty Images

One area where policies can have an significant impact is residential solar -- small-scale systems of the type that go on the roof of a home. State governments, as well as manufacturers, have been able to create incentives for the installation of home renewable-energy systems through grants or tax credits. 

In addition, public utilities' policies on net metering -- the rate at which the owner of a home solar system can sell unused energy back to the grid -- make a difference. Nevada cut back drastically on what it paid solar consumers in 2015, which decimated the state's solar industry, making it one of the few states that actually lost solar jobs between 2015 and 2016. (The state has since reversed course.)

"The economic incentives used to be fantastic. Now they're just pretty good," said GTM solar analyst Austin Perea.

But even so, decentralized energy installations are catching on. Globally, they made up a quarter of global investment in renewable energy last year. "I think we'll start seeing growth in sectors we haven't seen before," said GTM's Smith. "We're seeing Florida, we're seeing Texas, we're seeing development in the Midwest in a number of locations. So it's not just growing, but it's spreading into new territory."

Solar Power Looks to Expand In China's Growing Cities
Workers walk on on a solar panel project on the roof of a building on April 27, 2017 in Wuhan, China. As the world's most populated nation, China consumes more electricity and creates more carbon emissions than any other country. Yet it is also the world's leader in renewable energy. Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Another tailwind for the industry is growing political support for the alternative energy industry. A Gallup poll in March found that 71 percent supported emphasizing solar, wind, and other renewables vs. 23 percent supporting increased production of fossil fuels. Moreover, 59 percent say protecting the environment is more important than protecting the traditional energy industry.

"Drill baby, drill" just doesn't have the emotional appeal it once did. Even among Republicans: In a sign there is some daylight between Trump and his base, Gallup finds a majority of GOP voters prefer renewables over oil and gas -- possibly linked to the fact that gasoline prices have dropped in recent years. 

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